Joshimath stands on the precipice of erosion. Videos show distraught people leaving homes they spent a lifetime building and items they had managed to buy after long years of saving. They make it clear that is a town and its buildings crumbling but an entire culture and ways of living are collapsing.

Geologists and environmentalists warn that if unregulated construction and large development projects continue in Uttarakhand without considering the impact on the environment, a similar fate could befall other prominent hill towns such as Srinagar in Garhwal, Uttarkashi and Nainital.

As a child of the hills, this anguish is personal.

My grandparents, Partition refugees from West Pakistan, settled in Nainital district in the foothills of the Himalayas. Both my parents were born in or near the foothills. In 1991, my mother got a job as a teacher at a Government Girls Inter College in Gangolihat (Pithoragarh district). I was a year old.

My earliest memories are of going down to the Hat Kalika temple, perched atop my father’s shoulder, and eating bhatt chawal (rice and black beans, a high-protein dish suited to the hills) and jaula (another black bean preparation) cooked by one of the kindly ladies who lived in our neighbourhood.

In 1996, we moved to Bhowali, a fruit market town 11 km from Nainital. My happy memories continued with the celebration of Phool Dei, a spring harvest festival where children would hop from door-to-door and collect sugar candy, jaggery and even a few coins in exchange for flower petals.

I remember the plums, apricots and pangar (Himalayan horse chestnut). I would eat saana hua nimbu (a mixture of lemon pulp, curd and spices) in the afternoon sun. I would stroll down Ramgarh Road, a walk filled with quiet and barely any buildings, except the one I cared for – the library that lent me abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe and The Count of Monte Cristo in Hindi.

Residents shift their belongings to safer places, in Joshimath on January 11. Credit: PTI.

I left the hills for good in 2005, settling in Haldwani, a foothill town now indistinguishable from any other part of the plains. On a recent visit to Mukteshwar, from the passing jeep I fleetingly saw the locality in Bhowali where I had once lived. A multi-storeyed building stands on the field in which we used to play cricket and eat plums from a giant tree, just opposite the house we once rented. Sunlight is essential for houses in the hills, and the new building now casts a shadow over our old home.

The locality resembles a lane in a Delhi urban village. The quiet walk on Ramgarh Road has turned into a continuum of confectionary stores, restaurants and sundry buildings. The large playground roughly in the centre of Bhowali town is surrounded by flats.

One cannot begrudge residents the economic activities they undertake to improve their lives. In the face of government apathy, tourism is their only source of sustainable income – and that needs more hotels, more amenities and more construction. But the hydra-headed monster of rubble and concrete now threatens to engulf a whole town.

Joshimath: Residents affected by the gradual sinking of buildings walk, in Joshimath on January 11, 2023. The town has been declared a disaster-prone area after large cracks appeared in homes and on roads. Credit: PTI.
Residents walk amid cracks on a road in in Joshimath on January 11. Credit: PTI.

Joshimath is not the first victim of development in the region: the historic city of Tehri was submerged in a lake to produce more hydroelectricity after construction of a dam began in earnest in the 1990s. The ever-widening cracks in the homes and streets of Joshimath should make us think whether the wholesole erosion of a culture is an acceptable price to pay for development.

The state of Uttarakhand was formed in 2000 against the backdrop of much militancy and idealism around environmental conservation championed by activists such as Sunder Lal Bahuguna, who pioneered a variation of Gandhian non-violent protest – hugging trees to save them. The 22 years since have seen a reversal of those beliefs.

The temporary capital Dehradun is no longer the city described in Ruskin Bond’s gentle stories. Uttarakhand’s political class has resisted the demand for the capital of the state of hill people to be located in the hills – that is, Gairsain in Chamoli district. Dehradun is in the grip of real-estate developers who have turned the city into a snarl of cacophonous traffic. In some places, a volcanic eruption of dust and construction debris makes a mockery of the principles of urban planning.

Dehradun as seen on the route to Mussoorie.
A glimpse of Dehradun at the foothills of the Himalayas in January. Credit: Scroll Staff.

In the rest of the state, government initiatives to encourage hill-based agriculture, local cottage industry and to improve standards of health and education have been lackadaisical. Brighter students migrate to Delhi for their studies. Serious illness require a torturous journey to see specialist doctors in the plains. This has resulted in a steady stream of emigration out of the state.

As the 2011 Census showed, the populations of Almora and Pauri districts declined as young people left in droves. Uttarakhand consists of ghost villages, with locked houses awaiting their owners.

Unlike in the neighbouring hill state of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand lacks regulations on people from outside the state buying land. This has resulted in an endless drive to construct hotels, resorts and summer homes.

While government projects may be born out of necessity, the concerns environmental groups and geologists who have frequently warned the authorities about the fragility of the Himalayan ecosystem have been sidestepped. There has been large-scale blasting, drilling and tunnelling without regard for the impact of these projects in a seismically sensitive zone. Environmentalists have criticised the lack of awareness about soil type and quality, and a propensity to use construction methods applied in the plains.

The ever-widening cracks in the homes and streets in Joshimath are symbols of a broken system – unresponsive and uncaring towards anything but short-term gain. Even as this heartbreaking tragedy unfolds, I fervently hope the people of Uttarakhand will stand together to demand a new paradigm of development – one that is focussed not on the greed of a few to the needs of the many.

Akshat Seth is a Research Scholar in Media Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Opinion: Joshimath was a disaster waiting to happen, but nobody paid heed